Question: This may qualify as one of the most boring questions you've ever gotten, but I hope you'll humor me. Talking about today's hour-long dramas, my husband and I got into some of the oldies, like Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare. He insisted Dr. Kildare was a half-hour soap, but I say it was an hour. Who's correct? Thanks. Rose R., Newark, N.J.
Televisionary: You both are, Rose, though the show was an hour long for the majority of its September 1961 to August 1966 run on NBC (and was a drama rather than a soap).
The character of Dr. James Kildare, which first appeared in a Cosmopolitan short story written by Max Brand, anchored a radio show and a string of popular films MGM started cranking out in the late '30s. So giving the property a shot on TV only made sense, and with a young Richard Chamberlain in the white coat, it was a hit. But by its fifth season, its prognosis wasn't as good, and the network decided to go from an hour to two half-hours a week.
"Peyton Place [which aired twice a week] had hit the headlines, so they wanted to make a Peyton Place of it," producer Norman Felton explained to TV Guide in 1965. "I knew that Dr. Kildare would not make a good nighttime serial. But then I began thinking it over. In the past we had turned down ideas because they didn't fit into the one-hour format. Now we could do them."
Douglas Benton, another producer, admitted his first reaction to the decision was "mystification," but then he figured it might be just what the show needed, ratings-wise. "Last year it wasn't a flop, but it wasn't a howling success, either," he admitted. And his writers, for their part, liked the idea because it allowed them to tell longer stories in four or even six segments.
The only one involved in the show willing to say flat-out that it wouldn't work was Raymond Massey, who portrayed Kildare mentor Dr. Gillespie. "I think an hour is a more integral unit than a half-hour," he warned.
You couldn't blame Massey for not wanting to rock the boat. The part of Gillespie was what finally convinced people to stop thinking of him solely as Abe Lincoln, a part for which the actor had received heaps of acclaim in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Lincoln in Illinois. "Once you've trod the boards in Lincoln's shoes, you cannot abdicate so easily," he said, complaining of fans who'd approach him to say things like, "Hey, Massey, don't sit in a box at the theater tonight," or, "Split any rails lately, Mr. President?" (Once Kildare hit, of course, they approached him with equally unfunny gags like, "Gee, Doc, I got a pain right here." Call it suffering for your art.)
It wasn't that Massey didn't have enough of a sense of humor to appreciate the attempts. In fact, his willingness to laugh at the Lincoln image even came into play while he was working on the 1937 feature The Hurricane for mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who insisted director John Ford add more and more scenes, most of which had to be filmed in a 70,000-gallon studio tank. Finally, Ford decided to send Goldwyn a message. When the producer was watching rushes, he was stunned to find Ford had slipped footage in of a dripping wet Massey in co-star Dorothy Lamour's sarong and a stovepipe hat. "Fourscore and seven years ago, we started this picture," the solemn Massey said. "Now, for heaven's sake, Mr. Goldwyn, let us go home."
And it wasn't that Massey had too high an opinion of himself to absorb the jokes, either. Matter of fact, he could've held his nose higher, had he wished. Born into a wealthy Canadian farm-equipment manufacturing family, he owned a Connecticut and a Beverly Hills estate when he was shooting Kildare. He also drove a Rolls Royce, but downplayed his money and refused to be photographed with the car. (And if that wasn't enough to hurt the expensive auto's feelings, there was the time, the actor claimed, that he parked it in a London garage, forgot the name of the place and then couldn't find his ride for five years.)Points, too, to Massey for refusing to ever pull a cheesy "I'm-not-a-doctor-but-I-play-one-on-TV" routine. He turned down invitations to speak to doctors' conventions and boasted that he couldn't even cure a hangnail. (Of course, had he possessed healing skills, they might've come in handy when dealing with accident-prone co-star Lee Kurty, who by the time she started working on the show in 1965 had already been in a car accident; fractured her skull, her elbow and an index finger and suffered too many minor bumps and bruises to mention here.)
But Massey gets the most credit, of course, for being right. Nine months after he was quoted saying the new format wouldn't work, Kildare was off the air.